Into the Lion’s Den: From the richest US crit of the year to PR disaster

“Everyone’s going to get paid," said Legion founder Justin Williams

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Olivia Ray posed with an enormous fake check on the Lion’s Den podium, $15,000 scrawled across its face. The Rally Cycling sprinter had just topped Legion’s Kendall Ryan and Amy Pieters of SD Worx to win Legion’s inaugural event, a high-speed, high-hype criterium in downtown Sacramento, California. The date in the check’s top right corner read 10/30/2021. 

The race had a $100,000 prize purse, split evenly between invite-only men’s and women’s fields. The men’s teams raced in custom jerseys with their names and a number on the back and raced for a city, not a sponsor. The women’s field had stars like Pieters, who rides for one of the best teams in the world, lining up against Legion’s squad and other top US domestic teams like Rally.

“This is what we think crit racing can be,” Justin Williams, Legion’s founder and figurehead, said of the race back in August.

Five weeks after the race, Ray hasn’t been paid. No rider has, according to our reporting. Banks don’t take giant fake checks, and smaller, real ones haven’t yet materialized. 

On Tuesday, Ray took to Twitter to make the lack of payment public. She posted that she was “still waiting” for the money. It kicked off a minor storm within the crit racing scene, bleeding out into the broader cycling consciousness primarily via a collection of meme accounts on Instagram. 

Accusations flew. First at Legion for not paying up, particularly after touting the huge purse so widely. Legion riders responded, posting photos of race winnings they themselves had received after extensive delay. Ty Magner, another Legion rider, weighed in. “If you don’t like waiting a month for prize money, I suggest you don’t win any prize money in Europe,” he wrote. “The ‘Uci prize money management’ loves to sit on a years [sic] worth of winnings.” 

In a quickly deleted Instagram story, Legion’s Tyler Williams wrote “Let them race for gift cards from now on.” 

Then Ray recanted, posting an apology on Wednesday. The ire in the comments section turned toward “bullies” who had forced her to apologize, pointing the finger, without any evidence, directly at SRAM, a sponsor of Into the Lion’s Den and the component brand used by Ray’s own team, Rally Cycling. Her statement, posted on Twitter and Instagram, described her original post as “uncalled for” and went on to say, “I am deeply, deeply sorry for damaging the name of not only the @in2thelionsden event but also heavily disheartened by the backlash it has caused @l39ionla, a team I have the utmost respect for.”

Rally issued a short statement: “We support Olivia’s decision to not comment any further.”

Update: Following the publishing of this story, SRAM provided the following comment and clarification: “We were excited to support an event that aimed to diversify and expand the potential of cycling. SRAM has paid the race per our agreement. It is untrue that we leveraged our sponsorship to force an apology from Olivia Ray.”

Wrapped around a dispute over late payment is distrust bordering on contempt of Legion that has been building within the American criterium scene for the last year. It’s a sentiment Legion founder Justin Williams has tied to racism, implicit and explicit, while others point to Legion’s perceived hand in the downfall of the USA Crits series, among other episodes, as cause for suspicion. 

Justin Williams: “Everyone’s going to get paid”

To clear up one big question right off the bat: every racer who won money at Into the Lion’s Den will get paid, according to Justin Williams. 

The core of the problem was a simple cashflow issue, brought on by the somewhat rushed nature of the event itself and sponsor payments that didn’t arrive until around Thanksgiving, with some money still yet to arrive. 

“I’m not going to throw our partners under the bus,” said Williams. “This year was kind of a trial run, we got funding for it late. Well, not late, but we only had like three months to get the event together. All of the money was coming in, we got the green light for a big chunk of the money, but we still had to go to other people to make it happen.

“Everyone’s going to get paid, everyone knows the process,” he added. “I just got a check from Joe Martin [another US race – ed.], that was like 100 days ago. There’s a process in this sport. I never asked them for my money.” 

Pointing to the payment timelines of other events has thus far been Legion’s primary means of defence. And Williams, both Justin and Tyler (no relation) as well as Ty Magner, are all correct that race payments in pro cycling are often delayed weeks, if not months. Payouts for major European races can take a year or more. “I’m still waiting on a payment from 2019,” former WorldTour pro Pete Stetina chimed in.

Best practice for big American crits is to take tax information from winning riders immediately and make payment schedules clear in the tech guide. Neither occurred, and Williams acknowledged a ball had been dropped. “If we do this again, we’ll make sure all managers sign W9s [tax forms] at the race. That’s all growing pains,” he said. 

That wouldn’t solve the cashflow problems or payments that came in too late from sponsors. But communication from Legion to the relevant parties – riders like Ray – regarding payment timelines would likely have prevented this entire episode. That’s a fact Williams also acknowledges. 

The Legion backlash

As noted, Legion has found itself in the middle of a number of crit-related controversies in recent months. It helped kick off (along with other teams like LA Sweat) the downfall of USA Crits’ Scott Morris, who had received a Safesport ban this fall. That ban, according to an interview with VeloNews, was related to child pornography charges dating back to 2008. Those charges were abandoned, but USA Crits’ reaction to the Safesport ban and a perceived cover-up led both teams and races to remove themselves from the series. Within 10 days, USA Crits went from being the marquee criterium circuit in America to total collapse. 

That collapse hurt American crit teams, though none I’ve spoken to is willing to be quoted saying as much, wary of appearing to defend Morris in any way. USA Crits provided the backbone of these teams’ seasons and the live video coverage the series provided was used to bring on sponsors. One team expressed concern that it would lose a $20,000 deal – big money in the crit scene – due to the lack of a cohesive series. 

Those concerns led to the creation of a new team group, the National Association of Cycling Teams (NACT), which is working with USA Cycling to attempt to pull together a replacement for USA Crits. Legion is conspicuously absent from NACT. They were the only major team not to join the new organization, and Legion says they were not invited to participate. Update: NACT disputes this, and CyclingTips has seen screenshots indicating Legion was contacted

The undercurrent is that Legion is the only major American racing team that already runs its own race, Into the Lion’s Den, and has plans for more. That would make it a direct competitor to USA Crits. The team is also rich by American standards, with a budget many times larger than its nearest competitor and funding that is not based on appearances in the USA Crits series. Legion never really got on with USA Crits, even forgoing the series’ leader jersey on a few occasions in favor of its own kit. Legion was also among the first teams to raise the red flag over Morris. Given its plans around running its own events, Legion is unique in that it stands to gain from USA Crits’ demise while every other American crit team will almost certainly lose. 

Then there’s racism. Williams points to what he says is a double standard as proof that his team, founded and run by a Black man, is not treated as other teams are. 

“The standard always seems to be different when it comes to us,” Williams said. “What’s really disappointing is that because this sport has no diversity in it, everyone thinks this shit is normal. It’s not normal for us to be attacked for generating an event that had the highest prize purse in a very long time.

“Even if they don’t want to see us fail, they’re feeding this kind of frenzy that blows things out of proportion,” he said.

The backlash against Into the Lion’s Den began even before the race occurred. The talk of changing crit racing forever, and defining what the discipline should be going forward, didn’t land well with some within the crit community. 

Likewise, the hype built around the prize purse prior to the race made the delay in payment a memeable offence. Legion touted their race as one of the richest in American criterium history. Riders extended seasons into late October for a shot at the cash. Big money failing to show up is a bigger deal than little money failing to show up.

The race was invite-only, and riders from some major teams were conspicuously not on the list. These were riders who had run-ins with Legion throughout the season and one source indicated that a “lack of respect” led to the lack of an invite. 

The result, though, was accusations that Legion had tailored the big-money race so that it would take home all its own cash. Legion fielded two squads in the men’s race and finished first and third with Justin and his brother Cory Williams and second in the women’s race with Kendall Ryan.

Williams is unapologetic in his pursuit of that vision. “We’re giving everything we can back to the sport, we’re leveraging our partnerships, and people continually throw us under the bus,” he said. “The cyclists that are our peers don’t understand the hatred that we deal with.

“It makes me not want to do this anymore,” Williams said, near the end of our phone call. It’s the first time I’ve heard him utter anything along those lines. 

Failures and lessons and truths

It is possible for a number of things to be true simultaneously. It is true that payments from races are often delayed, both in the US and at much larger races in Europe. It is true that this isn’t a reality the sport should happily accept, but has for a very long time.

It is true that Legion didn’t follow some best practice regarding payouts. It is true that they simply didn’t, and possibly still don’t, have the cash. It also appears to be true, based on our reporting, that funds are coming and that riders will be paid what they’re owed. 

It is true, though not necessarily right, that publicly calling out a race for late payment, when that race’s sponsors are also your own sponsors, is likely to invite blowback on a professional rider. It is unclear whether anyone forced Olivia Ray into apologizing, and she is not commenting further to clarify. Williams said he reached out to her, “and said, ‘hey, let’s talk.’” As of publishing, the two hadn’t yet spoken.

It is true that late-paying races with poor communication deserve some condemnation. 

But here’s what’s also true: If it wasn’t Legion in this series of events, and it was any other team instead, this story almost certainly doesn’t swirl its way into an internet shitstorm like it has. The devil, as always, is in the details.

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